Batman Begins – Blu-ray Review

The Movie (4.5/5)

The year is 2003. The Batman movie franchise that began in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman has collapsed under the weight of the critically ravaged and low grossing Batman and Robin, and now Warner Bros. is looking for a fresh start. They hear pitches from just about everyone and their brother; avid comic books fans, notable screenwriters such as Akiva Goldsman and even famed Batman comic book writer Frank Miller stepped up to adapt this comic book arc, or that idea, all to no avail. After one last failed pitch involving a an origin story for the caped crusader, penned by Joss Whedon, they turned to writer David S. Goyer and now established quantity Christopher Nolan to take one last swing at bat. Pushing for a more realistic, grounded approach to the concept of the Batman, crafting an origin story that would attempt to pull audiences in not just for the Bat, but for Bruce Wayne as well. The results? A little known film aptly titled Batman Begins.

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Batman Begins is the story of how billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne transformed into the masked vigilante Batman. Returning home after 7 years in self-imposed exile, Bruce Wayne finds Gotham city in a state of decay at the hands of mobsters and corrupt cops. Having been trained in the arts of combat and theatricality by Henri Ducard, he uses the skills he learned in exile, as well as his family’s vast fortunes to transform himself into a symbol of justice, the Batman. With the help of his butler Alfred, Wayne Enterprises employee Lucius Fox, assistant district attorney and love interest Rachel Dawes, and Police Sergeant James Gordon he must stop a nefarious plan set in motion to destroy all of Gotham by the mysterious villain Scarecrow and the ruthless Ra’s Al Ghul and dismantle the mob’s hold on the city.

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It’s hard for me to look at Batman Begins as a singular film, as critics did in 2004 when it hit theaters. My first Batman movie was the Dark Knight in 2008, and it wasn’t until I was told by one of my peers that there was a previous film, I didn’t even know it existed – I didn’t hit peak movie watching age till a few years later. When I finally got around to Begins, I had been expecting something more like The Dark Knight: The Early Years, and while Batman Begins shares the grounded, realistic, and dark approach to the character that its sequel does, it approaches things in a much less nihilistic, much less edgy way that 2010 me didn’t seem to vibe as well with. As a result, I dismissed the film, and continued to chew up the themes, violence, and style of The Dark Knight that seemed so appealing to me at that time.

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Looking upon the film today, in 2017 however, Batman Begins almost seems like a breath of fresh air. It tackles many of Nolan’s favorite themes and concepts such a distrust in authority, the various ways with fear can be used to manipulate the populace, and a central identity crisis that drives the narrative, themes that would later be expanded and reinforced in The Dark Knight, but it does so in a way that is less brooding, and less pessimistic. When putting the two side to side, as I often do when watching franchise films, I realized something: Batman Begins is a comic book movie with realistic themes and ideas that we can relate to as people that stars Batman, while The Dark Knight is a character study about a nihilistic psychopath that illustrates the power of fear and intimidation cranked into extremes that also happens to have Batman as a part of it. They share a lot of characteristics, and while I still believe that The Dark Knight is a better, more well rounded movie, Batman Begins is a hell of a lot more fun – what a comic book movie really should be.

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Nolan and Goyer’s vision of this origin story is grounded in reality, but still leaves room for a comic book identity to flourish. For starters, the film’s Academy Award nominated cinematography is heavily stylized, especially in its use of color; the cityscapes are draped in the blacks and blues of the Gotham skies, but sequences set in the Narrows where the Scarecrow operates out of Arkham Asylum are draped in sickly browns and yellows. The scenes set in Wayne Manor are brightly lit and full of contrast lighting in order to make it feel detached from the dredges of Gotham. On top of that, much of the location photography has been lit and enhanced in post to give it an industrial aesthetic that almost feels steampunk in origin. There’s a certain warmth to the entire picture that disappears in later entries in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and it makes Gotham feel ripped out of a lovingly drawn comic book panel.

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On top of that, the script is full of clever dialogue and goofy one liners that help maintain levity in an otherwise dark and moody picture. While Bruce is developing the Batman persona, he embraces theatricality to make himself seem more mythical. He sneaks around in the shadows, but makes these grand gestures to kickstart rumors of his abilities amongst the criminal underworld of Gotham. The villains are absurd, one a psychopharmacologist that uses hallucinogenic drugs and a scary mask to inspire fear in his victims, the other is a leader of a shadow army populated by ninja warriors that uses an overly complicated plan to attempt to destroy Gotham. Batman runs around growling at everyone in an attempt to mask his true identity. Everything about it screams comic book fantasy, but the world and all of its mechanisms and characters are portrayed so seriously by the production, and Nolan’s direction so firmly planted on the ground that we as an audience take it seriously as well.

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Beyond its phenomenal comic book sensibilities is plot that does a great job of allowing us to invest in Bruce Wayne as a whole. Through the use of non-linear flashbacks, we see through his perspective the frustration and anger that’s consumed him following the death of his parents, and how he channels that energy into a force of good in order to try and salvage his father’s, and ultimately his family’s legacy. Through poignant moments shared between Bruce and Alfred, we get a chance to watch a much deeper connection build between the two than in any previous attempt at bringing the Bat to the big screen. We get a sense that there is a life beyond the suit, and through powerful performances and interactions guided by Nolan’s direction, it actually seems like it might be a life worth striving towards.

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It isn’t a perfect movie though. For all of the success it has in creating an interesting Bruce Wayne/Batman character through a terrific on screen presence generated by Christian Bale and a supporting cast of characters played by legends such as Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Liam Neeson who fully invest themselves in their characters to great benefit, it fails to create any real chemistry between Bruce and his romantic interest Rachel, due to a rather wooden performance from Katie Holmes that is magnified by a lack of screentime given for anything to develop. It often gets bogged down by lengthy exposition, especially in the film’s action packed climax where multiple characters seem to need to remind us of the stakes involved in stopping the League of Shadows, and the complex mechanisms through which their plan works. It hints at some of the issues that will later become exponentially worse in some of his later films.

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There’s plenty more I could dig into – James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer’s dark, atmospheric score for instance, which might be the film’s biggest departure from the previous Batman films, but I’ll leave you with this: Batman Begins is just as satisfying in many ways today as it was when it hit theaters in 2004. It feels epic, and more importantly it still feels unique in an era when we get an origin story for some new comic book hero once or twice a year. It’s script, editing, and performances create a memorable experience that I find myself reminiscing on years after seeing it, something that I can’t say about the billion origin stories that are pumped out to launch expansive cinematic universes today.

The Video (2.5/5)

Batman Begins was shot on 4-perf 35mm film with Panavision anamorphic lenses. It was finished photochemically for release on 35mm film prints with a projected aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It was then scanned to create a digital master, which is presented here in 1080p resolution in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

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Batman Begins is in pretty dire shape. I noted that when I first acquired the Blu-ray in 2010, and honestly, its only gotten worse with age. It’s important to note that the 1080p presentation here is well over ten years old, having first seen light as a flagship HD DVD release by Warner Bros. in 2006. It mostly like saw true origins as the master used to create the 2005 DVD release of the film, and not a made-for-HD scan of the film. That transfer was then ported without any enhancements to Blu-ray in 2008 to coincide with the release of The Dark Knight, which is what we have under the microscope today. The film’s color scheme is plagued by poor black levels and disappointing contrast levels that make many of the nighttime sequences in the film murky messes. Detail is often muted, and film grain has much more of a video noise-like appearance. Many of the shots have a very soft appearance in playback, which diminish the quality and natural sharpness of the Panavision lenses and Kodak film stock used to capture the film. Resolution of the image seems particularly poor, especially in wide shots and shots that feature heavy use of CGI elements. Batman Begins isn’t unwatchable, but it never particularly wows, or even looks all that good.

 

Considering Sony has re-released and remastered movies they issued during the early days of Blu-ray upwards of 3 times, such as The Fifth Element, it’s surprising that Warner never reissued or remastered a title as big as Batman Begins well…..ever. Honestly, it’s a huge disappointment.

The Audio (5/5)

Batman Begins was originally screened in theaters with 5.1 discrete digital audio. That experience has been preserved here with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround sound track.

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Say what you will about the video quality of this release, but I can hardly be disputed that this Dolby TrueHD track delivers on every front. The track is incredibly nuanced, with large action packed sequences in which sound effects are masterfully layered into a mix with the score and the often frantic dialogue. Bass is sharp, but booming and has excellent presence, especially when the Bat Tumbler is the focus of the sequence. Surround speakers find themselves used frequently, in both quiet scenes to create an enveloping atmosphere such as when Bruce is building the batcave, or when he climbs the mountain to Ra’s Al Ghul’s home, and when the battle for the Narrows breaks out and screams of terror and violence echo through the soundscape. Dialogue is firmly planted in the center channel, where it is produced with excellent clarity. This was a great example of what could be done with the capabilities of lossless HD audio in the home early on, and is still an incredibly fun, engaging mix when played back today.

Special Features/Packaging (2.5/5)

Batman Begins was originally released to Blu-ray in 2008 with both a standard keepcase and deluxe gift set, and later a Best Buy steelbook release of the film from Warner Home Video. Of the three, I’ve only ever owned the standard blue keepcase release. The front artwork features a slight redesign of the film’s theatrical poster, which features Batman disintegrating into a cloud of bats against a cloudy sunset, with a review quote from Ebert and Roper towards the bottom. The back artwork features the film’s technical features at the top above the Batman perched atop a building, back lit and surrounded by darkness and a list of special features, a review quote, and a paragraph about the film on either side. Below this is theatrical credits for the release, and other miscellaneous information. It’s a dated packaging design that has aged rater poorly, and is pretty much a retread of the original HD DVD packaging design. Bleh.

Onto the features:

The Dark Knight IMAX Prologue – the first six minutes from The Dark Knight, filmed entirely with IMAX 15/65 film cameras, as seen in both the finished movie and before IMAX 15/70 prints of I Am Legend during its original release. It’s the opening heist scene from the movie – good stuff.

In Movie Experience – a BD Live feature which offers some picture-in-picture behind the scenes footage and commentary from people who are part of the production. It doesn’t seem to work particularly well on my Blu-ray player. BD Live never really took off for a reason….

Reflections on Writing – a 2 minute clip in which writer David S. Goyer reflects on a few anecdotes surrounding his and Chris Nolan’s writing of the film.

Digital Batman – a minute long explanation of a proof of concept that visual effects designers could create a convincing digital model of Batman.

Batman Begins Stunts – a 2 minute long cut of various stunt rehearsal scenes which ended up later becoming finished scenes in the film.

Theatrical Trailer – the film’s original trailer, as seen during the time period leading up to its release.

Behind the Story – a massive collection of clips that detail how the film was written, cast, and designed from the ground up to become the movie we all know and love today. There’s also a really, reaaaaaaaaaalllllllly cringey Jimmy Fallon parody included as part of this collection. Stay away from that at all costs. Everything else however is rather in depth and very interesting content.

It should be noted that all of this content has been held over from the original deluxe DVD release of the film, and that there is no new HD content besides the IMAX Prologue extra. Add that to the dated packaging, and we have ourselves a release that’s desperate for an upgrade. Oooph.

Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)

Video

Region Coding: None

Codec: VC1

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Audio

Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English)

Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese)

Subtitles

English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Portuguese

Runtime: 140 minutes

Overall (3.5/5)

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Batman Begins is a great movie that can be as complex and nuanced, or as simple as fun as you want it to be. It did an excellent job of establishing a brand new darker, moodier approach to the Batman persona but also managed to immerse such a dark and troubled vision for the bat in a thoroughly fantastical comic book world, something that I feel later entries in this story never quite managed to do as effectively. Buoyed by a strong script, mostly excellent performances by a star-studded cast, and a great musical score, it holds up well nearly 15 years after its original release. Unfortunately, its now 10+ year old video transfer is pretty much a messy disaster, which is only held afloat by a great Dolby TrueHD Lossless audio track. The packaging design is in dire need of a face lift, and the extras are pretty much all DVD recycled content. It’s 2017, don’t buy Batman Begins on Blu-ray unless you’re in desperate need. Wait for the inevitable remaster.